March 31, 2012
The decision by the Boston schools and Boston Teachers Union to declare an impasse in their nearly two-year-long contract negotiations and have the state appoint a mediator is an acknowledgment of defeat. Negotiators should by all means keep plodding toward an agreement, but no one should expect any groundbreaking reforms. Rather, the school department should look elsewhere — to nonprofit groups outside the union — to provide desperately needed enrichment, tutoring, and extracurricular instruction.
Unfortunately, the hoped-for reforms in the teachers’ contract — a longer school day, better teacher evaluations, the dismissal of incompetent teachers — don’t lend themselves to the split-the-difference approach that mediation often involves. The union and the school department also remain more than $80 million apart on a salary package. The lack of progress is more than disheartening. It’s pathetic, and it speaks to a failure of leadership, particularly within the union.
There’s a better option. Nonprofit groups such as Citizen Schools already provide high quality offerings in arts, tutoring, and academic enrichment during the late afternoons for many Boston students, even bringing programs directly into the public schools. And these nonprofits can do the job at about half the cost of Boston teachers, according to a 2011 report by Bain & Co. Any funds available for a longer school day are best spent on nonprofits with proven records of success; it’s the quickest way to help deprived students.
This school year alone, 370 Boston teachers took up positions in schools based solely on seniority and certification with little or no involvement of the principal, according to a recent report by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. This inability of managers to select staff can make for a miserable school climate. In one bright spot in the otherwise dreary negotiations, both sides appear to see the value of limiting seniority as a factor in teacher transfer and reassignments.
Still, there are few signs that this contract will herald a new day in performance-based compensation or top-notch evaluations for teachers. Absent a breakthrough, the negotiations suggest a contract worth little more than the 5 percent raise over four years that the school department is offering. It’s puny. But so, too, is the reform package the union is offering.